With the death of German president, Paul van Hindenberg on August 2, 1934, Adolf Hitler would become the undisputed leader of Nazi Germany. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor by Hindenberg in January 1933. Hitler and the Nazi Party channeled discontent with the post-war Weimar government. In the July 1932 elections the Nazi Party got 232 seats with the Communists coming in second. Hindenberg declined to appoint Hitler chancellor instead preferring General Kurt von Schleicher who tried negotiating with dissident factions within the Nazi Party. The next elections in November saw the Communists gain more seats while the Nazis lost seats.
Ironically the Communists gaining seats just made the case for ardent Nazis, prominent German businessman, and the conservative National People’s Party to ally and convince Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor. Hindenburg did not like Hitler and Hitler had disdain for the old general. Once in place, Hitler asked Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag. This allowed the Nazis and the National People’s Party to become the majority. It allowed for the passage of the Enabling Act, which allowed the Nazis to rule by decree for the next four years. Hitler and the Nazi Party swiftly enacted measures to take full control of Germany by severely curtailing individual liberties, freedom of the press and of course, and dismissing Jews from all public offices. Elections from that point on became mere rubber stamps for the Nazi Party and there was nothing to stop Hitler.
There was only one obstacle for Hitler. Hindenberg could dismiss him from office and would command the support of the German Army. So, Hitler always treated Hindenberg with great deference and respect until he passed away. With the death of Hindenberg, Hitler became Fuhrer (leader) and the German military all took an oath of allegiance to the new commander-in-chief. And the last remnants of the old democratic government were dismantled and absorbed into the new Nazi state.
On 20 July 1944 a plot to kill German leader Adolf Hitler was undertaken. It has become known as Operation Valkyrie though that was originally part of the overall plan. The goal was to take control of Germany from the Nazi’s and to seek peace with the Allies. It failed in killing Hitler and resulted instead with thousands arrested and many executed as a result. One of the conspirators turned out to be Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was forced to commit suicide to avert a public court martial and save his family from being arrested as conspirators.
Plans to kill Hitler went back to 1938 when officers in the German Army and Military Intelligence began formulating plans to assassinate Hitler. Soon it joined with others in the civilian, intellectual, and political leadership to become known as Kreisauer Kreis (Kreisau Circle). Some disagreed about killing Hitler; others wanted to overthrow him to prevent plunging Germany into a disastrous world war. Attempts to kill Hitler had failed in the past leading to loss of morale. While many high-ranking German officers were involved in discussions (many of them Field Marshals), they did not report it to the Gestapo.
If the goal had been achieved, a restored government would not necessarily been like the previous Weimar Republic. It would likely would have been a conservative-authoritarian government with elections but skewed more towards the old elite class. There might have been even the restoration of a monarchy though in a limited manner.
By mid-1943, it appeared to many the tide had turned against Germany. Many in the German high command had become convinced Germany was being led to disaster. Both the military and civilian plotters realized Hitler had to be removed to prevent a likely invasion of Germany by the Soviet Union. Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, severely wounded in North Africa was recruited to the group. He like many were swept up in the nationalist goals of the Nazi Party and was a supporter though never a member of it. He did express views that were sympathetic to the Nazi position on Polish Jews. But by 1943, he had seen what the Hitler had done to Germany. His strong Catholicism opposed Hitler’s suppression of it and other religions. And he had come to see what the persecution of Jews looked like and did not like it either.
Stauffenberg was not the designer of Valkyrie but certainly had a hand in some of its components. By 1944 several attempts to assassinate Hitler had failed and Hitler was rarely seen in public. The Gestapo was now starting to dig deeper into the conspirators. Even so a few thought Heinrich Himmler might be persuaded to come over to them. He did not report a conversation when he was approached by a conspirator. It is likely Himmler had deemed the war unwinnable and saw himself as the successor if Hitler was removed from power. With Hitler now out of the public eye, killing him became more difficult. When Stauffenberg was appointed Chief of Staff to General Fromm of the Reserve Army, he would be attending military conferences where Hitler would be present.
On 20 July 1944 he set off with a bomb in a briefcase to Hitler’s Eastern Front military headquarters Wolf’s Lair. After priming one bomb in the bathroom before the conference (he had to handle a second one to his aide Werner von Haeften). Once inside the briefing, he placed the briefcase under the table near Hitler. Colonel Heinz Brandt likely moved it aside with his foot which deflected the blast but resulted in his death from injuries sustained when the bomb detonated at 12:42 pm.
The blast destroyed the conference room and killed the stenographer. Everyone else was severely injured and hurt (some like Brandt would die later). Hitler and the others had their legs singed, trousers tattered, and a perforated eardrum. Stauffenberg bluffed his way out of Wolf’s Lair thinking Hitler was dead. Confused reports about whether Hitler was dead or alive resulted in confusion with the plotters. They could not move forward if Hitler was still alive. A call to Field Marshal Keitel by General Fromm confirmed Hitler was still alive. Operation Valkyrie was now being done in many places believing Hitler was dead. Arrests were being done as if Hitler was dead. Himmler took control and shut down Valkyrie. At 7 pm Hitler made phone calls and it was clear he was quite alive.
The coup quickly fell apart. Orders were issued to secure areas and arrest the plotters. Conspirators turned on each other in some cases rather than face arrest by Gestapo. By midnight some of the top conspirators, including Stauffenberg, had been arrested and tried quickly by a court martial and executed. Further executions were halted as Hitler wanted them alive for trial.
The Gestapo rounded up nearly all the conspirators and through seized documents learned of others as well. Some included former German Army Chief of Staff Franz Halder. He was not involved in the 20 JulyPlot but was involved in several earlier ones. He was arrested and was imprisoned in Flossenbürg and Dachau concentration camps. Under new Blood Guilt laws by Himmler, family members of plotters were also arrested and sometimes executed as well. Erwin Rommel’s name came up since his chief of staff, Hans Spiedel, had connections to the conspirators.
It is not truly known to what extent Rommel was involved in 20 July Plot. He certainly did not support Hitler by 1944 and would have supported a coup to remove him. However it is not certain what his involvement was. His chief of staff Hans Spiedel was connected to the plotters and may have learned of their plans from him but that is not clear either. At best he may have had a general idea of what they wanted to do but opposed assassination as it would result in a civil war. However some plotters said he was involved (under torture) and would be part of the new government.
Branding Rommel, a very popular figure in Germany, a traitor would have been a major shock and caused serious questions about the stability of the regime. Rommel knew that public trials were rigged for the prosecution and he would have no chance of winning. And his family would suffer as well by being imprisoned. He was offered a chance to commit suicide (a honorable practice from ancient Rome that allowed important people to take their lives to spare their families) which he did by taking cyanide. He was buried with full military honors and the true circumstances of his death not revealed until after the war.
Since early 1945, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his closest staff had been living in a bunker 55 feet below the chancellery in Berlin. The 18-room bunker was self sufficient with its own electricity and water. Even then it was not comfortable but with Soviet troops threatening to siege Berlin, it was prudent to take cover. Between allied bombings and Soviet infantry moving in, things looked bad. It was clear to many in the German military and those close to Hitler such as Göring and Himmler, that the war was over.
This was not how it was supposed to end for Hitler. He started out in small and obscure group called Deutsche Arbeiterpartie (German Workers Party) that was formed in the aftermath of World War I in Munich. He joined in September 1919 and in 1920 delivered an impassioned speech that the party adopt Twenty-Five Points that would strengthen its purpose and attract new members. It succeeded and the name was changed to National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) or its more common and now infamous acronym Nazi. Fusing nationalism and socialism along with a strong virulent dose of anti-semitism, the party attracted a following. Hitler was a particularly charismatic speaker who knew how to draw in his audience. Members of the old establishment (nobility, wealthy industrialists, and the military) were not won over right away. The Communists* were completely opposed to Hitler as were the worker’s unions.
In 1923 Hitler and the Nazis attempted to seize power in the Beer-Hall Putsch in Munich. It would fail but the headlines it generated would make both Hitler and the Nazi Party well known to all Germans. And it taught a young Hitler an important lesson about taking power. He learned that taking power by direct action would not work and changed the focus to winning elections. And most importantly gaining support of wealthy industrialists and members of the old aristocracy. By 1930 the Nazi Party was now a major party and gaining followers. The September 1930 elections saw them gain 107 out of 577 seats in the Reichstag. In the presidential election of 1932, Hitler received 13.7 million votes for president. Hindenburg still won but the Nazi Party was gaining momentum. In July they gained 230 out of 680 seats in the Reichstag but the November elections saw them lose seats (34). Since the center and right parties still had the majority, only a coalition government could be formed. The Communists, by contrast, had gained seats in that election.
Hitler, after negotiations with other right and center parties and gaining key support from industrialists and military, would become Chancellor on 30 Jan 1933. The die was now cast with the Nazi Party now in command. Hitler and the party would quickly reorganize government so that every facet was under their control from newspapers to labor unions. Jews would be dismissed from all government positions, all non-state schools closed (that included religious schools and ones that trained for the priesthood), the formation of the Gestapo and much more would take place. In a rigged election in November, an astonishing 93 percent of the vote was cast for the Nazi Party. After the death of President von Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler would declare himself Fuehrer in accordance with the Fuehrer Prinzip outlined in Mein Kampf. Democracy, what little of it was left in Germany at this time, was kaput. He was now the ruler of Germany and everything flowed from top to bottom. For the next decade Germany would be built up ready to take what it wanted from the West. Hitler learned the leaders of Great Britain and France were so afraid of another general war they would do just about anything to avoid it. Which is why he was so successful in getting key concessions without any fighting at all. Eventually after his annexation of Austria and his threats on Poland spurred Britain and France to draw the line. But it was too late. And the French failed to act when the German army was in the east invading Poland. The rest, as they say, is history.
Germany would conquer its share of Poland (the other half was under Soviet control). Then would pivot west and take all of Western Europe above Spain to Sweden. At one point Germany ruled completely from the Atlantic to the borders of Russia. It sought to take control of North Africa. With Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler in Germany, most of Europe would be under authoritarian rule. Only Switzerland as a neutral state remained free as did Sweden. Germany would invade the Soviet Union in 1941 and declare war on the U.S. after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. At the early stage it was believed they would defeat Stalin and focus all of their energies to prevent the allies any success. And many believed Hitler would win it and negotiate a grand peace in the end. However the invasion that took place on 6 June 1944 would make many Germans realize that things had changed for the worse. And by May 1945,most of Europe had been liberated from German rule. Italy had been liberated by the allies and Mussolini dead. The Soviet Union suffered terribly under the German occupation and now were getting their revenge. Stalin had hoped Hitler would bring about the ruin of the west. It did not work out that way but the Soviet Union would dominate Poland, the Balkan States, and Central Europe for a very long time afterwards.
Hitler would commit suicide with his new wife (and former mistress) Eva Braun. They poisoned themselves and their dogs. Hitler would shoot himself to make sure he would not be captured alive. Their bodies would be cremated and on 8 May 1945 Germany would unconditionally surrender. So ended the life of one Adolf Hitler, former painter, soldier, and eventually the leader of one of the most ruthless states ever created. The six million victims of the fanatical desire to eliminate Jews stand testament to the evil that man can create. His book, Mein Kampf, sadly though is gaining new popularity primarily in the bookstores in Turkey and the Middle East. And inspiring new evils.
*Although opposed to Hitler and Nazi Party, the German Communist Party was ordered by Stalin to stand down in opposing Hitler. Stalin believed Hitler’s war with the West would so damage them they would be ripe for invasion. This led him into believing that a pact with Germany dividing up Poland would give Hitler the free hand he needed to war with the West. He totally misunderstood Hitler and was caught unprepared when Germany invaded in 1941.
By 1938 there was no doubt anymore about the intentions of Germany’s Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. European nations were generally worried about a major war and to that end the two biggest powers in Europe: France and Great Britain, sought to avert it. It was based on the experience of the First World War in which millions had died. The aftermath of that war was a sentiment that total war must be averted at all costs. So far all of Hitler’s violations of treaties, such as occupying the Rhineland in 1936, had caused no major retribution even if it was a major violation of the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had agreed to in 1918.
In spring 1938, Hitler claimed that German-speaking people living in Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia wanted closer ties with Germany and began agitating that unless this was done it would be taken by force. Hitler claimed that this region was part of a Greater Germany. Needless to say, the Czechoslovakian government was concerned. Hitler had annexed Austria in 1938 and he might just do the same to Sudeten. Czechoslovakia had a pact with both France and Great Britain to come to its defense. Neither power was interested in having to defend Czechoslovakia on the battlefield. Both Britain and France sought to avoid a war and both agreed, without bothering to consult with the Czechoslovakians, they would give Hitler what he wanted. The deal was that in areas of fifty percent or more German Sudetens would go to Germany.
Hitler though, sensing he could get a lot more, wanted to put German soldiers in Sudeten and that Czechoslovakian army had to leave by 28 Sept 1938. This caused a crisis resulting in the Munich Conference of 29 Sep 1939. In attendance were British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, French premier Édouard Daladier, and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini presented a plan (that imitated a German proposal) which allowed German military occupation and an international commission to resolve disputes. It was formally agreed to on 30 Sep 1938. Czechoslovakia was presented with this agreement and had no choice but to accept or face immediate invasion. Chamberlain would get Hitler to sign a treaty and proclaim later, upon arrival in Britain, that he delivered “peace for our time.”
Germany acquired not only territory but the industrial resources that it needed (raw ore, steel and iron production, electrical plants). Czechoslovakia was diminished as a result. While many in public in Britain and France heralded the agreement as avoiding war, there were warnings it was wrong. Winston Churchill was critical of the deal and how they had abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The British Labor Party opposed the deal as well. A view began to emerge and would continue long after, that Britain and France wanted to get out of the military pact as they were not ready for war. Was Hitler bluffing or not also is discussed as well. The evidence is that Germany could have invaded but got what it wanted without firing a shot. And it was handed to Hitler on a platter by two powers that in the last war had been Germany’s enemies. It could not have been a greater present for Hitler.
Czechoslovakia was doomed by the pact. In October 1938, it was forced to hand over under the Vienna Award territory in its south to Hungary and a small concession to Poland. In March 1939, after Slovakia seceded to become a pro-German state, Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia accede to German occupation, which it did. Czechoslovakia then became a protectorate of the Third Reich. Churchill’s warning had come true. With his policy of appeasement now deemed a total failure, Neville Chamberlain realized that it was time to mobilize for war. The French would likewise make preparations (but so entrenched was the avoidance of total war doctrine failed to act when it had the option to do so when most of the German army was invading Poland). In September 1939, World War II would officially begin with the invasion of Poland and declaration of war by Britain and France on Germany.
The lesson of the Munich Pact is that making short term deals with dictators to gain a moment of peace comes at a high cost. The Czechs were abandoned by Britain and France to their fate because neither one wanted to stand up to Hitler. Both Chamberlain and his French counterpart would live to see how badly it would turn out. After war broke out, Chamberlan’s popularity fell and would resign on 10 May 1940 and replaced by Winston Churchill though remained in the Cabinet. He would die in November 1940. Édouard Daladier, who was under no illusions as to Hitler’s goals (but knew support for standing up to Hitler was thin),had resigned his position in March 1940 but was still minister of defense when Germany invaded. He would be arrested and charged with treason by the German supported Vichy government and imprisoned. He would be imprisoned in several places, including the Buchenwald concentration camp and ended up in Itter Castle in Tyrol with other French dignitaries until liberated on 5 May 1945 after the Battle of Itter . He would return to the Chamber of Deputies after the war, served as mayor of Avignon, and died in Paris in 1970.
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